WASHINGTON - An exiled Iranian Sunni rights activist says Iran’s apparent arbitrary detention of an outspoken Sunni cleric is the latest sign of a bleak future for the nation’s minority Muslim sect.
Speaking to VOA Persian last Thursday from London, Abdol Sattar Doshoki said Iranian Sunni cleric Molavi Fazl al-Rahman Kouhi has been imprisoned for six months in the northeastern city of Mashhad on the orders of a Special Clerical Court that summoned and jailed him last November. The Iranian court handles crimes allegedly committed by clerics and is accountable only to the supreme leader of the predominantly-Shiite Islamist-ruled nation, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Kouhi is the Friday prayer leader for the southeastern Iranian town of Pashamagh, inhabited mostly by Sunnis of the Baluchi ethnic minority. The special court summoned him to Mashhad and jailed him on November 28, days after he gave a sermon criticizing Iran’s Shiite rulers for violently suppressing nationwide protests against their sharp increase in gasoline prices earlier that month.
In December, Washington confirmed a Reuters report citing unnamed Iranian officials as saying about 1,500 people were killed in the government’s crackdown on the protests. Iran has called that figure exaggerated but refused to release its own figures for those killed.
Doshoki said Kouhi’s sermon described the crackdown as un-Iranian, un-Islamic and inhumane. “For that, the Baluchi cleric has been arbitrarily detained with no legal or due process,” he said.
There had been no word on Kouhi’s status since several Iranian rights groups last reported that he remained in detention in March and April. The groups expressed concern about his potential exposure to the coronavirus, which has been spreading in Iran’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons in recent months.
Doshoki’s Center for Balochistan Studies has long sought to raise awareness about Iranian Shiite discrimination against the Baluchi community in southeastern Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. It has shared its findings with the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Kouhi previously had been detained for a week in April 2017 after issuing a fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, against fighting in the Syrian civil war, according to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. CHRI cited a source as saying Kouhi had been arrested also without charge on that occasion.
Iran has sent its forces to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam, in his years-long civil war against Sunni rebel groups.
The U.S. State Department’s 2019 report on religious freedom in Iran, released last week, estimated 99.4% of Iran’s 84 million people are Muslims, with only 5% to 10% of those Muslims being Sunnis of various ethnic groups, including Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis and Kurds.
Iran’s constitution adopted after its 1979 Shiite Islamic Revolution says the four Sunni schools of Islam (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices.
But the U.S. report said residents of Iranian provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. It also cited human rights activists as saying Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group.
“Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted last August.
“When you look at the experience of Iranian Sunnis over the past 41 years (since the revolution), you see it has just gotten worse,” Doshoki told VOA. “This indicates that their future is bleak.”